Life and Death in Florida: Reflections on the Terri Schiavo Case

Monday, 28 March 2005

For several weeks the country has been riveted by the tragedy concerning Terri Schiavo, her husband Michael, and her parents Bob and Mary Schindler. The drama has intensified in the days since Terri's feeding tube was removed by court order and her parents have fought unsuccessfully to have it reinserted. I can understand the perspectives of both the husband and the parents, and despite their divergent opinions on the proper course of action with regard to Terri, I believe that they are all acting in accordance with what they believe are her best interests.

The same cannot be said for all who have involved themselves in this case. The Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress, while they have an interest in clarifying the laws concerning the rights of patients and their families to make decisions regarding the continuation or discontinuation of patient care, had no business interfering in this specific case to try to force a particular decision. End of life decisions are always painful, and when all parties do not agree on the proper course of action, well-delineated laws are helpful, and courts are sometimes necessary to resolve disputes--state courts, not federal courts. The last thing any family needs is a bunch of lawmakers with varying political agendas and ideologies stepping in to make a decision for them. That is not the job of legislatures; it is the proper role only of families, doctors, and their chosen spiritual advisors.

If the legislative branch of government should not be involved in this case, even less should the executive branch of either the state or federal government. The governor of Florida and his brother the president of the United States have the right to express their opinions on matters involving this case, but they have no right to attempt to exercise powers that neither the state nor federal constitutions grant them. Such abuses of power smack of dictatorships rather than democracies, and both the state and federal courts correctly struck down their actions as unconstitutional intrusions into matters that did not directly concern them. More importantly, their interference in this case merely prolonged the suffering of family members on both sides of the argument over whether to remove the feeding tube.

Despite my criticisms of legislators, the governor, and the president, I don't believe that most of them were acting in bad faith; they were simply overstepping their proper authority and interfering illegally and unadvisedly in a situation that did not concern them. I reserve my harshest criticism for any and all involved who have tried to use this tragic situation to score political points. We must be careful when ascribing motives to particular actions, but when politicians send out memos such as the one alerting Republicans that the Schiavo case was "a great political issue," condemnation is not only possible, it is obligatory (many Republicans have joined Democrats and independents in condemning the memo). To take advantage of a family's tragedy for political gain is unconscionable, but it is a sad truth that people of all political stripes are often more concerned with spin than with painful realties affecting real people.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay stands out as an especially troubling participant in this drama. A self-proclaimed strong advocate for "the culture of life" (to use the president's words), DeLay is also well-known as a master political strategist and ruthless politician. How can one explain the contradiction that when DeLay's family faced the difficult decision several years ago to halt further life-sustaining measures for DeLay's father, who lay in an irreversible coma in the hospital, DeLay agreed with the rest of his family to let his father go, yet he loudly denies the Schiavo family the very same right to decide her earthly fate?

One other group of people that should be singled out for reprimand are those on all sides who impugn the motives of family members who are most closely associated with this tragedy. Is it not hard enough for both Michael Schiavo and for Terri's parents to have to endure her situation without the added burden of others questioning their actions, as if they had something to gain from this situation? One can only hope that if they should find themselves in the middle of a similar family tragedy at some point in the future, others will show more Christian mercy than they are currently demonstrating.

I would like to leave the actions of politicians and activists aside now and reflect on this case from a theological perspective. Religious leaders from different faith traditions have weighed in on this case with varying conclusions about the proper course of action, and I don't deny that the case is difficult. I think that most theologians and ethicists would agree that technology is a wonderful thing when it saves lives, but it sometimes preserves life--or is it life?--beyond the point that is proper. Where exactly is that point beyond which we should not use technology to extend life? Who should make the decision at what point to remove life support? Should certain kinds of life support (e.g., feeding tubes) be excluded from the term "life support"? These are issues on which people will continue to debate, and the discussion is both valid and important.

In the end, though, the most important question to me is: who should make the decision regarding whether to "pull the plug" (i.e., cease medical treatment and allow the patient to die) when doctors have determined that the patient has no hope of meaningful recovery? The first answer to this question is the patient herself. If she has left a living will or has clearly communicated her wishes to family members, friends, or doctors, those wishes should be followed. If the patient has not left any such instructions, or if there is some dispute over the patient's wish, state courts may have to decide based on an evaluation of the evidence at hand. If the evidence is ambiguous, then I believe that the responsibility for making the decision should devolve upon the patient's spouse first of all, followed by the patient's children, parents, other family, friends, and doctors, in that order. (Note that politicians do not appear in this list, nor do total strangers.) The right of the spouse rather than the parents to make such a decision (barring conflicts of interest, which only courts are competent to determine) is predicated upon the first passage in the Bible that speaks of marriage: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." In Christian tradition certainly, and in the traditions of other faiths as well, marriage represents the establishment of a new bond that supersedes the ties of the original nuclear family into which a person was born.

My wife and I have discussed the question of who would make the decision of when to pull the plug should one of us be in an irreversible unconscious state, and we both agree: I will make the decision for her, and she will make the decision for me. We arrived at this agreement years ago, but the Schiavo case has made us revisit and reconfirm our earlier decision. The case has also spurred us to look into creating living wills so that there will be no doubt concerning our own desires concerning the use of technology to sustain our bodily functions.

A final theological point I would like to raise concerns the question of whether death is the greatest evil and should always be avoided if possible. Many of the most vociferous supporters of keeping Terri Schiavo alive indefinitely seem to be advocates of this position. I am amazed that anyone claiming to represent a Christian perspective would hold such a view, for it suggests that death is the end, the loss of hope, rather than a new beginning in the presence of God. Death is not something that we as Christians should seek, but neither is it something that we should fear when the time comes. Our faith teaches us that God is with us in life, that God awaits us on the other side of death, and that God walks with us through the veil.

O sweet and strange it seems to me, that ere this day is done
The voice, that now is speaking, may be beyond the sun--
For ever and for ever with those just souls and true--
And what is life, that we should moan? why make we such ado?

For ever and for ever, all in a blessed home--
And there to wait a little while till you and Effie come--
To lie within the light of God, as I lie upon your breast--
And the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.

   Alfred, Lord Tennyson, excerpt from "Conclusion"

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